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From AJR,   July/August 2002  issue

Days of Rage   

News organizations have been besieged by outraged critics accusing them of unfair coverage of the violence in the Middle East. Are they guilty as charged?


By Sharyn Vane
Sharyn Vane has written and edited at papers in Colorado, Florida and Texas.      

Comparing the articles side by side, it was crystal-clear to Eric Rozenman that there was a problem. "In the feature we read that 'weeping [Izzadin] family members accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of terrorism, and called him a "beast," ' " Rozenman noted of a March 13 story in the Washington Post--a "26-inch story," by the way, that "ran as a front-page feature...accompanied by a large color photo of Israeli armor."

"Israeli lives and dreams shattered by numerous acts of Palestinian terrorism generated no such personal, front-page coverage in March," Rozenman, executive editor of B'nai B'rith's International Jewish Monthly, wrote in a letter to the Post published in mid-May.

He went on to criticize the Post's subsequent coverage--inside the A section--of the suicide bombing at an Israeli Passover seder: "This 16-inch feature...ran with a two-column, black-and-white photo," he wrote of a follow-up story to the front-page coverage immediately after the attack. "It contained no quotations about the 'beastly' behavior of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, no sources sympathetic to Israeli despair or anger, no personal details of the Jewish dead."

Rozenman isn't the only one who thinks there's a problem with the media's coverage of the Middle East. At the Pennsylvania-based Palestine Media Watch, an electronic crossroads of pro-Palestinian sentiment, readers are given explicit instructions for dealing with reporters. Why? Well, if you check out the "Unfair Interview Practices by the U.S. Media" section, you'll find a battery of reasons for Palestinian supporters to keep their guard up. The No. 1 offense: "Being rude, condescending, disrespectful to pro-Palestinian interviewees, but always remaining respectful when speaking to the pro-Israelis: often, Palestinians are cut off in mid-sentence, lectured, often voices are raised against them in anger or irritation--even if the speaker is a respected Palestinian official (e.g., Paula Zahn of CNN cutting off [Palestinian Legislative Council member] Hanan Ashrawi or raising her voice in anger against [professor and frequent pro-Palestinian commentator] Edward Said)."

Elsewhere on the site, news consumers are urged to complain when news reports use " 'retaliation'/'response' when describing Israeli actions" or if the Gaza Strip or the West Bank are not described as "occupied" territories. Lists of media contacts invite visitors to "Contact an editor or an ombudsman!"

The upshot? Readers, viewers and listeners are mad--and they're demanding to be heard like never before.

Complaints about Mideast coverage reached record levels this spring, the bulk of them alleging an anti-Israel bias in the media. At National Public Radio, Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin says he received about 9,000 e-mails on the issue between March and May. At the Los Angeles Times, more than 1,000 readers suspended their home delivery for a day to protest the Times' coverage; a few hours north, the San Francisco Chronicle was drubbed with dozens of cancellations. On some days, hundreds of e-mails poured into the offices of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Washington Post complaining about the newspapers' coverage. The language in some of the missives was, to put it mildly, harsh.

"One ended with the Nazi salute, 'Sieg Heil,' " Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler wrote in a March column, one of several in which he has addressed criticisms of the Post's Mideast coverage. "Another said a 'more appropriate name for your newspaper would be 'Der Stuermer' [a Nazi-era anti-Semitic newspaper], since you are supporting the murder of innocent Jews."

Across the country, editors acknowledge they have made mistakes, but to a one maintain that there's simply no bias shaping coverage. Yet the sheer volume of complaints raises the question: Can so many readers be wrong? Or, if criticism is coming from both sides, does that mean the press is painting a balanced picture?

Concern over Mideast coverage isn't new. Whenever events in the Middle East have heated up and news organizations have sent reporters into the fray, newsrooms have become the repository for allegations of bias. What floored some in the business beginning in March, however, was the steadiness and strength of the complaints.

"It's more continuous and more intense than I've ever seen it," NPR's Dvorkin says.

Readers who felt that the Washington Post's coverage was anti-Israel staged a weeklong boycott in June, fueled by the Web site boycottthepost.org. This grassroots organization says the Post's reporting violates the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. Palestine Media Watch is also angry with the paper. It criticizes the Post's use of "retaliation" to describe Israel's actions but not those of Palestinians.

Nor were television networks immune. At CNN, Chief News Executive Eason Jordan says he received as many as 6,000 e-mails in a single day complaining about coverage from both sides of the issue. CBS News logged complaints from viewers throughout the spring, although, spokeswoman Sandy Genelius says, the network always receives feedback on Middle East issues and didn't see a huge spike the way some newsrooms did.

And while complaints tapered off by mid-May at other news outlets, memories of the onslaught were still fresh. Lillian Swanson, assistant managing editor and ombudsman at the Philadelphia Inquirer, says a March column she wrote on the Mideast conflict generated about 85 comments, "which is one of the highest responses we've gotten" on one of her columns. Swanson says in March the complaints were evenly divided, although, in late spring, there was an increase in those who said the Inquirer's coverage was anti-Israel.

People have bristled at everything from word choices to story play. At NPR, Dvorkin says listeners were right to complain about some of the labels used in stories about the siege at the Church of the Nativity. "We referred to them as peace activists.... I think 'peace activist' is a misnomer. I think that's what they call themselves. I'm not sure that in that case we gave the listener enough information," he says.

In Boston, NPR affiliate WBUR has lost $1 million--7 percent of its funding--from sources who protested that the station's coverage was anti-Israel. Station General Manager Jane Christo told the Chicago Tribune that over time the station's coverage has been balanced.

In Minneapolis, some 350 readers--including Gov. Jesse Ventura and the state's two U.S. senators--took out a full-page ad in the Star Tribune to express ire that the paper wouldn't describe suicide bombers as terrorists. Editor Tim McGuire said "suicide bomber" was more specific; in an op-ed column, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jim Boyd compared the Star Tribune's style rules with other papers' (and found the Star Tribune wasn't that unusual).

The paper's reader representative did say the Star Tribune made a mistake in its Jenin coverage--an assertion echoed by an assistant managing editor. In a May 12 column, reader representative Lou Gelfand called the editing of a wire story about charges that Israelis were guilty of war crimes "an embarrassing wart, an unusual, egregious stumble in handling several hundred dispatches about the Mideast violence." While the New York Times and other papers noted high up in their stories that charges of a Jenin "massacre" had been exaggerated, the Star Tribune's dispatch, which was headlined "Rights Group: Israel May Be Guilty of War Crimes," included that information in the 21st paragraph.

At the Inquirer, a front-page story on West Bank settlements prompted a minute analysis by one reader, Swanson says. "We had, I thought, a very thorough and very human story about what it's like to live in one of these settlements. This was someone who didn't like the story at all, and she went to the effort of counting the words. Here she says, 'In a 1,077-word article on this subject 269 words, or 25 percent, are given to Israeli critics of the settlement and only 87 words, or 8 percent, are given to supporters of this settlement.'

"It just tells you how closely parsed these stories are," Swanson says, "how closely we're being watched."

Omissions spurred some of the biggest surges of complaints, especially failures to cover rallies. The mass subscription suspensions at the Los Angeles Times, for example, were prompted by the paper's failure to cover the Israeli Independence Day festival in Van Nuys, California, April 21, an event that also served as a rally in support of Israel and which drew 40,000 people, including Gov. Gray Davis. The paper had covered an Israeli Independence Day celebration in Israel a few days before, but editors admitted they were wrong in not staffing the Van Nuys event. "We should have covered it, and it's inconceivable to me that we didn't...but it wasn't deliberate," Assistant Managing Editor Miriam Pawel said in a story published April 28 in the Times.

In San Francisco, by early May about 70 people had canceled their subscriptions to the Chronicle, in part because of the paper's failure to cover a pro-Israel rally in mid-April that attracted about 5,000 people; it did, however, write about a pro-Palestinian rally that garnered a smaller audience. Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein and readers' representative Dick Rogers admitted in two columns that the paper should have covered the rally for Israel.

The New York Times didn't cover a pro-Israel rally in April that drew 50,000 protesters, prompting three prominent New York Jewish leaders to call in early May for a mass boycott of the paper. Rabbi Avi Weiss, head of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, told the New York Post that he was urging his congregants not to buy the Times. Catherine Mathis, spokeswoman for the Times, says there have been subscription cancellations linked to complaints from both sides of the issue, but she would not say how many.

The Times stumbled again a few days later when it ran two large photos of pro-Palestinian demonstrators as part of its coverage of an event that drew 100,000 Israeli supporters and 200 supporters of Palestine. Only one photo of pro-Israel marchers appeared. The paper ran an editor's note saying, "In fairness, the total picture presentation should have better reflected the Times's reporting on the scope of the event, including the disparity in the turnouts."

Mathis wrote in an e-mail to AJR that in general, the Times is "highly conscious of sensitivities surrounding coverage of the Middle East. Our determination and our staff's assignment, as always, is to cover all sides thoroughly, dispassionately and with scrupulous impartiality. Our correspondents and editors are chosen for their demonstrated ability to carry out that mission.... If occasionally the facts of a particular news situation seem likely to provide more satisfaction to one side than to others, our policy is to restore the balance promptly in our overall coverage."

It sounds reasonable. Anyone who has spent time in a newsroom, with those the-train-is-running-off-the-track saves and endemic interdepartmental miscommunication, would find it hard to imagine that these same people are banding together to slant a story.

Even some critics say flawed coverage isn't necessarily the result of bias. "I think bias is a strong word and term to describe what's out there," says Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "There are problems – problems of ignorance, of lack of perspective. There are problems of people with no knowledge being parachuted into a situation and producing incomplete coverage.... But I am certainly not one to say that the American media is biased against Israel."

Similarly, Ahmed Bouzid, president of Palestine Media Watch, told reporters that his group seeks to strengthen lackluster reporting--not to make accusations of bias.

And without exception, the editors I talked to said there was no pervasive bias triggering the mistakes that they made in their coverage. Consider the Inquirer's Swanson, writing in the column that garnered her such a large response: "I reviewed the news coverage since mid-February and saw stories with quotes from sources on both sides; headlines that avoided advocacy; criticism of Israeli and Palestinian authorities; and images on both sides of ghastly suffering. That's not to say the paper is perfect. We make errors and we fix them."

"You cannot assign motives," Swanson said in May. "Nobody questions our coverage more than we do internally.... Certainly we've made mistakes in the paper--titles we've gotten wrong or settlements we've referred to as Palestinian settlements. That's just silly mistakes. But I don't think anybody should say that we're trying to rewrite history and affect coverage."

Although most news organizations report that the majority of their complaints are from pro-Israel readers, there have been significant complaints from both sides of the debate. Such equal time may overload newsrooms weary of being criticized, but it also lends weight to the assertion that over time, a balanced picture is being presented.

Also worth mentioning, as L.A. Times reader representative Jamie Gold points out, is that some critics don't necessarily want that balance. "One of the most disturbing things to me is that I don't think some readers realize the point of an unbiased newspaper or a fair journalistic voice. I look at those [complaints] and despair," she says.

WBUR's Christo echoes that point: "I do not have a problem with being held up to scrutiny," she told the Tribune. "But with pressure groups, it is different because their motives are different. There are people who don't want us to be fair.... If they feel in general that there are good guys and bad guys, if you're not on the side of the good guys you are letting the bad guys win."

Readers can "very easily" see a bias or imbalance in coverage based on their point of view, says John Schidlovsky, director of the Pew International Journalism Program.

"There is so much more coverage than there was of the 1967 war or the 1973 war," he says. "That tends to generate complaints from those who already have an existing bias one way or another.... I think most of [the complaining] is nonsense, predictable, politicized opinion-mongering."

Relying on the principle of correlation as causation is faulty, editors say. The simple fact that more people are complaining than have before is fueled by factors that don't have a thing to do with the quality or accuracy of coverage, they say. For one, there's the power of the Internet--e-mails can be sent out with just a moment's notice, perhaps en masse at the urging of a certain group. (Gold, Getler and others report receiving form-letter e-mails.)

E-mails from the front lines or from family and friends--whether they contain true information or not--can then be forwarded to the appropriate newsroom contacts. The same is true of news reports that are copied into e-mails, along with information charging a certain media bias, and then forwarded around the e-mail circuit.

"The letters to the editor desk sent down four e-mails...all of them saying, 'Fox News Online had a certain report, why don't you have it?' " says Dan Hortsch, public editor at Portland's Oregonian. The report was about a truck found near Seattle with alleged traces of TNT that had been rented to men with Israeli visas. The report was proven false--FBI tests showed another substance had triggered a false positive result for TNT. But some of those who complained were convinced that the absence of the story was proof that the Oregonian didn't want to fairly cover both sides of the conflict. "The implication being that these are terrorists, and that why are we covering this up?" Hortsch says.

Access to foreign news reports also fuels the debate. When foreign outlets publish accounts of fighting that may not have been confirmed or may be from suspect sources and the American press doesn't run those stories, it is seen as further proof of a cover-up by the U.S. media. The same has been true of press coverage of the war in Afghanistan (see "The Civilian Casualty Conundrum," April).

"The issues around the so-called massacre in Jenin were very intense," NPR's Dvorkin recalls. "Many of the American journalistic organizations were more circumspect--as it turns out, appropriately so."

Hortsch also cites Jenin as a trouble spot. "There was the whole question in Jenin of how many people were killed," he says. "There were a lot of people who were hearing that hundreds of people were dying, and sometimes they were getting e-mails directly from people in the Mideast and reports from there that weren't confirmed. I'm not saying anybody was trying to spread false information, but they weren't confirmed numbers."

He also got e-mail complaints that were based on reports from British newspapers such as the Times of London, the Independent and the Guardian, charging that these English news outlets were doing a better job of reporting the conflict. "I'm not sure I saw any factual difference in the ones I looked at," Hortsch says, though there may have been more emotion or a different approach in those stories.

Also, when a reporter or editor does make a mistake, it's forwarded around the country as yet more evidence of a problem. "The same kind of possible omissions that occur in every type of reporting become so much bigger and mean so much," says the L.A. Times' Gold. "When there are flaws we [in the newsroom] can look at it and say, 'Yeah, that's questionable,' but it goes on the Internet and it becomes magnified."

Indeed, the Internet has spawned a larger group of media observers, says Schidlovsky of the Pew International Journalism Program. There's also a "proliferation of pundits and cable shows and think tanks.... I'm not saying that's bad--a lot of that is good, intelligent commentary and criticism," he says. "But there's certainly a greater amount of that kind of people who see it as their function to criticize. So the fact that there's a higher complaint level doesn't necessarily mean there's a problem, it just means there's a greater community of people who watch."

Where newsrooms may well have fallen short is in realizing just how closely they would be scrutinized, says Aly Colón, an ethics fellow at the Poynter Institute. In a post-September 11 America much more attuned to events in the Middle East, where outlets of information from Arab sources have increased--and where the conflict has been intense--coverage of the region is subject to acute examination, Colón says.

"More people are vested in what's going on, and that has caused people to be far more concerned and observant about how that picture is developed," he says. "What's happened in my view is that the news media has sort of ratcheted up its attempt to provide more comprehensive coverage without in some cases understanding or recognizing how that coverage was going to be read and taken in.... [Readers are] more active in responding to it because it's affecting them personally."

So in addition to the inveterate news-watchers, Colón says, there are new consumers of international news who feel strongly enough about what's happening that they're moved to speak up. Hortsch thinks Colón is right about the expanded audience. At the height of coverage, Hortsch says people who hadn't traditionally contacted his office were weighing in. "Not all of them, but some of them, a good many of them, were people who were offended by Israeli actions and thought that Israel had gone too far and had acted too violently," he says. "These were not Middle Eastern people as far as I can tell--we did hear from some Arab Americans--but...people who did not necessarily speak up on or perhaps identify with the Palestinian view in the past were reacting to the Israeli offensive."

Other editors maintain that papers were well aware of how much attention the coverage would generate--and that this wasn't a case of being asleep at the wheel.

"I think that anybody who has been involved in this coverage going back at least to September of 2000, when the latest intifada started, would know that this is a story that some people feel very passionate about," says the Inquirer's Swanson. "So we knew that we were going to be watched closely.... I think that what was hard to take was the volume and intensity [of complaints] that seemed to peak with the violence."

The Post's Getler, who has also served as the paper's assistant managing editor for foreign news, agrees: "I don't think it was underestimated, because the people here are pretty experienced. They're not in the business of satisfying particular groups of readers; they're in the business of covering the story the best they can, and I think that's what they're doing. They're going to make some slip-ups from time to time, and we try to call them on it."

So where do newsrooms go from here, amid boycotts and e-mails and phone calls alleging that they really don't know what they're doing? As Getler points out and other editors agree, they simply go on reporting the news as best they know how.

"We should try to be as fair and as accurate as we can be," Swanson says. "And to do anything else would be a big disservice to our readers."

That said, there's one more step observers like Colón think is necessary: more explanation of why news organizations make the decisions they do. Whether that takes the form of editors' notes or columns by ombudsmen, readers need to know that the reason a suicide-bombing story went inside the A section was because editors decided there were stronger contenders for the front page, not because there was a decision to hide or diminish the developments, he and others say. (Swanson ran into this issue, as the stepped-up Mideast fighting coincided with a desire to put more local stories that readers couldn't get elsewhere on A1.)

"The public needs to be told how we're doing things and why we're doing things," Colón says. "That takes quite a bit of thinking about what you're doing and why you're doing it.... When all of a sudden you begin to see reams of copy covering groups of people in an amount you have never seen before, the outsider's view is, 'Why is this going on? Did you suddenly make a change in how you're seeing the situation?'

"I think it's different if you say, 'Hey, we haven't had access to these people before, we haven't been able to provide this context before. You may want to know how they think and what they're doing.' "

William L. Winter, president of the American Press Institute, says openness is smart early on to answer critics and crucial throughout the duration of the reporting. "It's logical to react to an opening burst of criticism by explaining the paper's decisions," he says. "What is its coverage plan? How does it decide what to run and what not to run?"

As reporting continues and deepens, so should the candor of the newsroom, Winter says. "I think you invite groups of the critics in to sit in news meetings and talk with reporters and editors," he says. "You continue to write occasionally about the criticisms and make special efforts to run as many letters on the topic as possible to show that there's criticism on both sides."

Such openness happened in May at Tucson's Arizona Daily Star. Reader advocate Debbie Kornmiller told readers about a series of changes in Mideast coverage. The paper began a 30-day trial subscription to Reuters news service to see if its stories would bring a greater depth to the Star's report. Also, a link on the paper's Web site would take readers to the online versions of the Daily Star of Beirut, Ha'aretz, the Jerusalem Post and the Jordan Times. The Star promised that photo and story-play decisions would be made by at least two editors and that headline decks would include a secondary news element for fairness.

The changes capped six months' worth of talks, suggested by Publisher Jane Amari, between Star editors and community members with both Israeli and Arab viewpoints, Kornmiller says. Interestingly, at the height of the conflict the Star received just a handful of comments each week about its coverage--though Kornmiller says that shouldn't be taken as some automatic sign of success. "As journalists, we think we do a good job on many things that we really do a crappy job on," Kornmiller says. "Once the fighting started, we really didn't get that many more complaints. It wasn't a lot--maybe two or three a week. But my gut feeling was that we weren't doing it right."

Even newsrooms that weren't making such wholesale changes did report on the complaints they received. At the Washington Post, Getler wrote at least six times about the issue in his Sunday ombudsman's column; both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times ran stories outlining the breadth and scope of concerns over the papers' own reporting as well as that of others.

But that's not likely to be the end of it. Though editors say they don't expect the jabs to stay so intense, they think that as reporting goes on concerned readers will continue to call and write and e-mail--and maybe even boycott.

As Winter puts it: "I think these criticisms are going to continue, simply because it is such a highly emotional issue. There's a lot at stake over there."